‘The Eight’: Author Rosenblatt tells the story of the Lemmon Slave Case

MILLBROOK —  When author Albert M. Rosenblatt asked, at the beginning of his presentation on Wednesday, April 19,  how many of the more than 61 people in the audience at the Millbrook Library had heard of the Lemmon Slave Case, very few hands went up. Those that were raised belonged to those affiliated with the judicial or legal systems. Most had never heard of the case, as it happened far back in time, just eight years before the Civil War.

Rosenblatt is an author, former district attorney and retired judge. He served on the New York Court of Appeals from 1999 to 2006, and heard, during his tenure, of the Lemmon Case, one that had been litigated in “his” court in 1852, based on an 1841 New York state law that granted freedom to any enslaved person brought into the state. His book, “The Eight,” is the story of the case and the tale behind the ultimate decision.

The Lemmon family — Juliet, Jonathan and their seven children — were moving from Virginia to Texas by way of steamboat. They were in New York along with their eight slaves — two women and six children — to get passage on a ship to go to Texas.

An abolitionist heard about this and, being cognizant of the 1841 law, took it upon himself to help the enslaved people gain their freedom via that law. Louis Napoleon applied to Justice Elijah Paine of the Superior Court of New York on their behalf for a writ of habeas corpus.

Rosenblatt said that after hearing several times about this case, he decided to read the decision for himself; he noted that he was intrigued by why Napoleon would go to court for the freedom of the people; the two women, 5-year-old twin boys, two other boys, and two young girls.

The lawyers were Charles O’Conor, attorney for the Lemmons, and William Evarts, attorney for the enslaved people. Rosenblatt’s delivery, while a serious topic, was not somber, and he had several side stories that made the case even more interesting, with tidbits of historical significance and a touch of poignancy in the telling.

He noted that at one point, Mrs. Lemmon entreated the two enslaved women to remember that they were part of the big, happy, family: “…We eat from the same dishes,” and so forth. Rosenblatt asked the audience to remember that these women had always been enslaved, always been held by the Lemmon family. He asked, “How hard must it have been for them to stand firm, not knowing what the disposition of the judge would be.”

Paine found in favor of the enslaved people and granted them their freedom. From there, not much is known; they were taken via the Underground Railroad to Canada.

Through extensive research, Rosenblatt did come up with some information on them, and found descendants of the original slave families, Emeline Thompson, aged 23, her brothers Lewis, about 16 and Edward, about 13 and her children, twins Lewis and Robert Wright, 5 or 7 years old, and Amanda, 2. The other family was Nancy Johnson, 20, sister of Richard and mother of Ann, 2.

In his book, Rosenblatt tells a little about the Lemmon family, how they lived, and he tells how Emeline, the oldest of the eight enslaved people, had been recorded at the age of 1, without a name, listed under “slaves under the age of 10.” She belonged to William Douglas, father of Juliet, who inherited her father’s property, including animals and enslaved people, when Emeline was 7. Juliet later married Jonathan Lemmon, who then became the owner.

When things became tough in Virginia, the Lemmons decided to try their luck in Texas. Missing a boat in Richmond, they went to New York to catch a steamer to Texas, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“The Eight” is filled with information, but it also has many illustrations that tell the story of the life and times of slavery, the South, and the before and after of the Civil War.

It depicts, as well, some of the propaganda used to portray the slaves as happy and well cared for. Rosenblatt also tells of finding Tyler West and his father, Randy, in Lansing, Michigan, direct descendants of Lewis Wright, one of the twins of the original eight, and how he has established a relationship with them.

The Millbrook Historical Society partnered with Kira Wizner and Merritt Books to present the program, and the large crowd that they attracted was evidence of the interest in the book and the topic. The Millbrook Historical Society welcomes new members; programs are free and open to the public. though registration through the library calendar is encouraged.

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